Comics editor Françoise Mouly has worked for her entire career to combine visual literacy with enjoyable narratives. From her work as the Art Director of The New Yorker to collaborating with Art Spiegelman and other professional cartoonists, Mouly has gained many insights to share about using comics with students.
Mouly on the Depth of Comics
I am advocating for educators to put comics into the hands of students. Teachers have learned that the medium itself is not necessarily simplistic. A comic strip is a simple iteration of a narrative when it’s well done, but the simplicity is not for lack of possible depth. I think a well-done comic can be like a poem. A poem can be simple, but it has a purity and it is honed down to a form that allows it to acquire depth.
Mouly on Comics for Beginning and ELL Readers
There should be more great comics for students at that moment when they’re learning to read English—it’s a perfect medium to introduce them to books. Comics give an enormous amount of information, even before words can be read. They tell where the character is, what he or she is wearing, what his relationship with the other character is, and how the character is feeling.
Unfortunately, it seems like the process of teaching reading tends toward taking away the pictures from the child. Oftentimes, educators feel that the goal is that, by second grade, students should be able to read books without pictures. And in order to accomplish this, they wean the child away from the picture.
I feel that the opposite actually works a lot better: let students use the pictures to the fullest extent possible, and the pictures will show them the way into the sounding out of the words. In fact, the process of reading a comic is not anti-reading words but is actually completely parallel.
Visual literacy is exactly the same kind of process as what you need to do to be able to make sense out of words. You use inference, you use deductions, you make connections in your head, you predict the future, and you empathize with the characters. All of those things are what reading is. Reading is not phonics; it’s actually constructing a story in your head.
Mouly on Editing the Toon Books
I edit the Toon Books in a specific way because they are leveled readers. Some of it has to do with the vocabulary and making sure that the words are the best choice to express a meaning, determining what can be decipherable for a kid at that reading stage.
I test new books in schools to make sure that the kids really do have all of the necessary information to put two and two together. For example, in the opening page of Benny and Penny in Just Pretend (Toon Books 2008), Benny says, “I’m a pirate.” Pirate is not necessarily a word that the child in first grade will have encountered previously or will know how to sound out. But we make sure that the first time they see it in this book, Benny has a thought balloon right above his head, in which he’s shown in a pirate ship, and there’s a pirate flag, and he wears a pirate hat. So it starts with a “p,” and there are three visual clues as to what that word can be.
Once we have given the kids the word pirate, then, in the other instances where it appears in the book, it doesn’t need to be shown three times visually. So there’s a critical analysis of the text that is almost mathematical. I do the analysis with the artists, with the teachers, and with the kids, all working together to get a seamless narrative.
Questions for reflection for students:
Consider the relationship between pictures and words by reviewing just the text of a picture book without the illustrations. Explore how pictures and words work together to best tell a story.
Look at a favorite comic book and consider its design. What makes the story clear or not so clear? Look at what parts of the story are told in pictures, told in words, the location of words, and the sounds and other sentiments expressed via text and art.
This post was originally published as an article in Carin Bringelson and Nick Glass’ monthly column for School Library Monthly.